The Finale of Breaking Bad and What Great Does to Our Brains

Purple Flourite Cubes by cobalt123 from FlickrBreaking Bad, possibly the best show I have ever seen aired on television, is coming to a close this Sunday. It has had a five season run in which no episode has felt extraneous, old interesting details have come back around instead of being forgotten about, and it is promising to actually have a true finale instead of petering out.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this happen before.

The Wire, a show I have claimed justifies the invention of television, fizzled in its final season.

The Shield had a fantastic run and finale as well, but there were some flabby seasons in the middle.

And that’s it.

Some arguments can be made for other shows obviously, The Sopranos comes to mind, but overall the number of shows that have been strong throughout their entire run is very low.

I’m always frustrated by that. I hate that so many creators allow their shows to go soft or vapid or end on a complete clusterfuck of a note. I understand that the network a show airs on has a lot of say, and the time constraints that writers have to work under are grueling, but still I feel like I should be able to list…you know…some other shows that have stayed strong for their entire run.

Granted I’m pretty picky, and this is art so it’s all open to interpretation, but with most other television viewers I’ve talked to the list is painfully short.

Yet, as I said, this coming Sunday Breaking Bad will be joining this list…and it is so much fun! The social aspect of it is astounding. On text and on twitter and in bars I can strike up a conversation about this show with anyone.  I was wearing a t-shirt this Saturday with a Breaking Bad reference on it and strangers were coming up to share their thoughts on how the finale might go. I was walking down the sidewalk and a random doorman shouted out, “Hey there, nice shirt, Mister White!”

I’ve heard a lot of arguments about how this sort of thing is dying in the age of Netflix, DVRs, and lightning fast DVD release, and I tend to agree with those arguments.

Compare your average finale and the buzz surrounding it nowadays to what it was like in the past. The finale of M*A*S*H is often cited as one of the pinnacles of television viewing. There are stories, possibly apocryphal, that the New York water system experienced painfully high usage whenever a commercial came on because so much of the city was taking bathroom breaks at once. While that may or may not be true it does capture how much of the population was all watching the same thing at once; the M*A*S*H finale garnered 105.97 million viewers in an age when there were 83.3 million households that had televisions.

Those sorts of things don’t happen anymore. The high that M*A*S*H hit was partly because there wasn’t as much competing with it due to far fewer channels, and partly because if you missed that one showing you were kind of screwed. Things didn’t re-air back then and, as best as I can tell, M*A*S*H wasn’t available on VHS until the 90s. There used to be a holiday-like sense to the finale of a popular show that seemed like it would never occur again. I’m as stunned as anyone to see that it is happening now. I don’t know anyone who is planning on watching a later airing of the Breaking Bad finale and I’ve heard of parties being thrown as well as bars holding mass viewings.

I am loving every aspect of it.

There is a sense of closure coming, of saying goodbye to these amazing characters, but there’s also something else that’s harder to pin down. There is something about storytelling that commands our attention; we become still and our eyes grow intense and we forget where we are as we become enveloped in another person’s world. It’s a magical feeling. Normally my brain bounces from what to eat to if I’ve paid my credit card to do I have to do laundry to where is my current book going and on and on and on. But a great show, a great book, a great story can halt all of that if only for a while. It can produce a sense of focus that lets us shed our lives and exist in unfettered place in our minds.

That is what greatness can give us. That is what storytelling does.

Or at least that is what it should be doing.

Too damn often I come out of a movie or watch an episode of something or put down a book, and I just feel sort of “meh” about it. And when I talk it over with someone I mention how parts made no sense or there were plot holes, and all too often the response I get back is, “Well what did you expect?”

This. This is what I expect. Breaking Bad. Solid writing with consistency. This.

When did that become too much to ask?